Razor Mountain — Chapter 6.2

Razor Mountain is a serial novel, with new parts published every week or two. For more info, visit the Razor Mountain landing page.

Two days later, excited and nervous, Christopher stepped out of the bunker with a full pack on his back and another tied onto his makeshift sled. It would be more than he needed for a day trip, but he needed all of it to validate his experiment.

Christopher knew, intellectually, about the Dunning-Kruger effect, but he now realized that he had never really believed that it applied to him. Of course he knew his own strengths and limitations, fully and completely. As a suburban office worker who hadn’t gone camping since childhood, he had known he was no expert outdoorsman. On the other hand, how hard could it be, if you had the right equipment?

A week and a half in his current predicament had cured him of those notions. Even with the safe, warm, well-stocked bunker as his base camp, he could tell how out of his depth he was. Making it to the next square on the map would require a multi-day trip. He would need to navigate. He would need food and water and shelter. Even then, he had no idea what he would find when he got there.

He checked his compass and veered off at a diagonal to both the line of the cliff on his left and the shore of the pond on his right. The lightly wooded land ahead sloped slowly upward toward a pair of hills. His first landmark. He stopped after a few minutes and looked back.

The entrance hatch to his bunker was fairly well-protected under the overhang of the cliff. While it wasn’t exactly hidden, it could only really be seen from a small area of shoreline within twenty or thirty feet of the hatch. From his current position, it was invisible. If each of the locations marked on the map were a similar structure, Christopher might navigate perfectly and still never find what he was looking for. He could stand on top of it and never know.

He would have to prepare for the trip to the next square, and the trip back if he didn’t find anything. Then he’d be faced with an even tougher decision. Try again? Dare an even longer journey to the next dot in the chain? Or sit in the bunker and wait until the supplies eventually ran out, with less hope of rescue every day?

He forced himself to not think so far ahead. First, he would get to that next dot. That was enough for now.

But before he could do that, he had to convince himself that he had a reasonable chance of making it there and back.

He had decided on a one-day trip for his first major excursion. He could scout in the direction he would be headed. He could practice camping and cooking, and he would be much less likely to become catastrophically lost. He would pack everything he was going to take on the final trip. As it turned out, that was a lot.

The day ended up being perfect for hiking. The sky was clear blue. The sun shone brightly, providing what little warmth it could. Visibility was perfect, and the mountainous landscape and trees were the only thing preventing Christopher from seeing from horizon to horizon.

He was surprised how energized he felt. He was finally doing something. He was taking control. He had to admit, it felt a little out of character for him, but in a good way.

“All it took for you to be proactive was a terrible, mysterious plane crash in the wilderness,” he said to himself as he trudged up a low hill. “They should make that some kind of corporate leadership training exercise. Get your MBA in Alaskan Wilderness Survival and Self-Esteem today, at Fly-By-Night University.”

His makeshift sled worked unreasonably well, considering it was just a broken shelf. He had debated whether it would be too much of a hindrance in rough terrain, but it didn’t seem possible to carry both the tent and all his supplies on his back. So he was hauling it, at least on this test excursion, to see how practical it was.

He did his best to keep a steady pace, knowing that once he was more than a day out from the bunker, the speed of his progress would be a very real factor in his survival. He paused on a hill with three aspens crowning it and ate one of the strange jerky-and-fruit bars. He measured his progress by the movement of the sun. As it approached noon, he found a flat place with only a little snow, nestled between two low hills. A crescent-shaped grove of aspen, still clinging to a few of their yellow leaves, half-surrounded the hills, providing some protection from wind.

He unstrapped the little shovel from his backpack, he did his best to clear a space in the snow. Then he set everything down on the sled and unfurled the tent. He had set it up twice, once in the comfort of the bunker, and once on the bare, flat ground between the hatch and the pond, with the full inconvenience of heavy gloves and winter gear. Now, he did it once again, setting up the inner tent, then the outer rainfly. He used the hammer end of his hatchet to pound the stakes into the frozen earth.

By the time the tent was set up to his satisfaction he was sweating beneath the layers of winter clothes, and he realized he was intensely thirsty. He paused to drink from a jug of water, and ended up finishing half of it. It seemed strange to be so thirsty hiking in the cold, but he would have to be careful to not become dehydrated.

He hauled his gear into the tent, doing his best to avoid tracking snow inside. He set up the sleeping pad and sleeping bag. He already felt the allure of taking a warm nap, but with no alarm to wake him he didn’t want to risk accidentally camping overnight. This was only supposed to be a day trip. He took off his jacket and snow pants, and sat cross-legged, sipping water and taking inventory once more.

His backpack was filled with things he most wanted to have on hand, or keep dry. The sleeping gear, extra clothes, fire starter and the food that could be eaten on the trail. The backpack was also equipped with a pocket specifically for a first-aid kit, and straps for snow shoes, collapsible shovel, and hatchet. In the pack on the sled, he kept more food and water, a gas camp stove and fuel tank, a lantern and cooking utensils. He had also brought a rifle and a box of ammunition, even though he had never fired a gun before and doubted he would be likely to use it for hunting or self-defense.

Once he had rested and cooled down a bit, he suited up once more and went outside. He cleared a space near the tent to set up the little camp stove. First he melted enough fresh snow to refill his water bottle. Then he opened a can of chicken noodle soup. He knew that there should be nothing stopping canned goods from staying fresh for decades, but he still sniffed it tentatively. It smelled more or less like  soup. The little burner of the stove was unimpressive, but it heated the small saucepan well enough. Christopher worried that he had no good way to check the amount of fuel left in the small tank. It wasn’t a concern on this trip, but it might be a concern on a multi-day journey.

By the time he was done with his lunch and felt somewhat rested, it was well past midday. He felt a little foolish disassembling the tent after having it up for an hour, but he packed it back into its bag, and all the rest of his gear into his backpack. He had thought he was becoming acclimated to tromping around in the snow and spending hours out in the cold, but hiking with dozens of pounds of gear was sapping his energy more than he had expected. It drained him just knowing that he couldn’t step back into the warmth of the bunker whenever he wanted. As he followed his own tracks back the way he had come, he could tell that his knee was starting to get irritated again as well.

The motivation of the morning had left him. A sharp wind came blowing out of the southwest, and it brought scudding clouds that dimmed the sun as it drew closer to the horizon. Christopher pulled his ski mask down over his face against the cold.

As the sun sank lower, it became clear that he was taking much longer going back than he had on the way out. He came to the hill with three distinctive pines where he had taken his mid-morning snack as the sun approached the mountain peaks, casting them in red light. All he could think was how lucky he was that he had decided to take a test outing before attempting the real thing.

He climbed to the top of the hill and squatted among the three trees for another snack, watching the sun come down to touch the tallest peaks. He remembered to drink his water and found once again that he was incredibly thirsty. He rose and picked up the sled rope, but before he could start down the hill, a crack rang out, echoing among the trees and hills.

It could have been a large branch breaking somewhere in the distance, but something about the timbre of it gave Christopher the unshakable feeling that it was the sound of a gun, far in the distance. He waited and listened, holding his breath without realizing it. The silence was cut only by the gusting wind. He knew there were probably a dozen natural explanations for such a noise in the wilderness, but it left him feeling uneasy.

After a minute or two, he continued. The sun sank past the distant mountains and the now-cloudy sky lit up like a purple and red bruise, then faded slowly to black. It felt like a defeat when Christopher was forced to get out the gas lantern and light it. It was well after sunset when he reached the long, gentle slope that led down between the cliff face and the pond, back toward the hatch and the bunker. Navigation had been easy. He just had to follow his own trail.

The moon was obscured, but the cloud cover wasn’t complete. There were patches of sky where bright stars still shone through. Christopher paused to take a deep breath of cold air and stare up at them. Even after a frustrating day out in the wilderness, he couldn’t deny that it was beautiful out here.

In the small patch of open sky, framed by gray clouds, a streak of light appeared, followed by another.

“Damn.”

He couldn’t remember if he had ever actually seen shooting stars before. People always seemed to make such a big deal about them in TV and movies, but it was just a tiny streak of light, so quick and faint that he wondered if he had imagined it. Still, he decided to take it as a sign of good luck, finishing out an otherwise unsatisfying day.

“I wish to not die alone in the wilderness,” he said, under his breath. Then, recalling that he had seen two, he added, “And I’d like to go home, please.”

The sigh of warm air as he opened the hatch was a relief. He dragged the sled inside and left a trail of slightly damp clothes across the floor on the way to the bunk room. He had just enough energy to replace them with warm, dry clothes. Then he fell into bed, where he was immediately asleep.

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